Prison sell-off ‘a kick in the teeth’

HMP Northumberland at Acklington.
HMP Northumberland at Acklington.

A decision to privatise HMP Northumberland has been branded a ‘kick in the teeth’ by the local MP, while Prison Service staff have expressed outrage that their own bid has been rejected.

The backlash comes after an announcement in the last hour that three private companies – Sodexo, Serco and MTC/Amey – will now compete for the contract to run the prison, which was formerly two separate units, HMP Acklington and Castington Young Offenders Institution.

Just this week, the prison gained a good report from HM Inspector of Prisons, praising its development since the amalgamation last year.

The latest stage of the competition for eight prisons and a new approach to competing services across the public prison estate were announced by Chris Grayling, Secretary of State for Justice today.

It said the competition process had produced ‘a compelling package of reforms for delivering cost reduction, improvements to regimes and a working prisons model in these prisons’.

But Sir Alan Beith MP said: “This decision is a kick in the teeth for the prison staff and management who have successfully merged two prisons into one, and earned a good report from HM Inspector of Prisons, which was published this week. It was a serious mistake to subject the prison to market testing while the merger was still taking place, and the public sector bid should have been allowed to go to the final round.

“I am not at all convinced, from my work on the Justice Committee, that Ministry officials have enough experience of contracts to assess the promises and forecasts made by private contractors, and I do not want to see the mistakes and disasters of the East Coast and West Coast rail contracts repeated at HMP Northumberland.”

He added: “Although there will be protections for the pay and pensions of existing prison staff if a private bid goes ahead, this is going to be a worrying time for people who do a vital and difficult job and deserve to be treated more fairly in the contract process.”

Unions are also up in arms at the announcement, with the Public and Commercial Services union demanding an independent review and a halt to further sell-offs.

General secretary Mark Serwotka said: “The privatisation of our prison service ought to be a national scandal and that this has happened without any public debate is shameful.

“It is morally reprehensible that companies are profiting from locking people up and we urgently need an independent review to look at the impact on our communities, staff and prisoners.”

The Ministry of Justice has estimated that these changes will generate £450million savings over the next six years.

Chris Grayling said: “The cost of running our prisons is too high and must be reduced. We can do this by being more innovative and efficient, and without compromising public safety.

“That is why I have decided to take a new approach to how we compete prison services and reduce unit costs across the prison estate that will lead to better value for the tax-payer, linked to more effective services to reduce reoffending.

“This is a challenge the public sector must rise to. The approach I am announcing today does not rule out further prison-by-prison competitions in the future.”